Saturday, June 28, 2014

Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot

There's an excellent article in the current New Yorker by Lee Siegel about the strange friendship of Groucho Marx and T. S. Eloit - or perhaps the "strained" friendship.

And from Siegel's article we can conclude one thing: Eliot may have been a better poet than Groucho, but Groucho was a lot funnier than Eliot.

Of course, this will come as no surprise to anybody.  But what may surprise most of you (who aren't huge Marx Brothers fans as I am) is that Groucho was a very gifted writer, especially when it came to his correspondence.  Siegel quotes from Groucho's letters and highlights the antagonism buried beneath the superficial cordiality of the Marx-Eliot friendship ...

In response to Eliot’s polite letter, Groucho, who was born Julius Henry Marx, reminded Eliot that his name was Tom, not T.S., and that “the name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. ... All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed. ... ” He ends the letter still refusing to acknowledge Eliot’s wife Valerie, and reminding both of Eliot’s less-than-Bloomsbury origins: “My best to you and Mrs. Tom.”
Groucho and Eliot had been promising to visit each other for three years before Groucho finally came for dinner at the Eliots, in June of 1964. According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo—the only existing account of the dinner—Eliot was gracious and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, became fixated on “King Lear,” in which the hero, Edgar, just so happens to disguise himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his fevered ideas about “Lear” (“that, too, failed to bowl over the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho pushed on. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I was not going to let anyone—not even the British poet from St. Louis—spoil my Literary Evening.” 

"The British poet from St. Louis" is marvelous phrase, especially coming from the pen of a veteran of vaudeville, who had performed in every town in America, and who was certainly not impressed by the hot and humid river towns of the mid-west.  Or even by T. S. Eliot.

Siegel at first seems to be straining a bit in making his case that the relationship was strained, and that there was quite a bit of antagonism in the subtext of the letters Marx and Eliot wrote to each other.  But I suspect he's right - for elsewhere he quotes Groucho ...

“I get away with saying some pretty insulting things,” he told one of his biographers. "People think I’m joking. I’m not.”

Groucho, in a sense, took on the identity of his on-screen persona and functioned as a kind of "licensed fool" in society at large.  

Siegel is coming out with a "short critical biography" of Groucho that promises to be quite interesting.

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